More than a year-and-a-half ago, Obama told a university audience in Cairo, studded with the next generation of Egypt’s leaders, that the U.S. supports their democratic aspirations. Now, protests against the government of President Hosni Mubarak will force Obama to make one of the more consequential decisions of his presidency before he can know all the ramifications.
“Eventually, he will have to make the decision on standing with Mubarak,” said former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen. “Too soon is a mistake. And too late is mistake. No one can say at this particular point in time.”
The administration has sought to calibrate its response, with Obama saying Mubarak must take concrete steps toward addressing the grievances of Egyptians and urging restraint on both sides. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday called for an “orderly transition” and “free and fair elections,” stopping short of saying Mubarak should step down.
With demonstrations against Mubarak entering the sixth day, Obama, 49, also has directed his aides to stay in close contact with Egyptian leaders outside the government, including the opposition movement, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They have deftly been walking a very fine line between their relations with an old ally, Mubarak, and the forces of change within Egypt,” said Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and to Israel who is founding director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.
The challenge to Mubarak’s 30-year rule has caused widespread ripples. Stocks worldwide plunged on Jan. 28, with the MSCI World Index declining 1.4 percent, while crude oil jumped 4.3 percent, the largest gain since 2009. Dubai’s DFM General Index was up 0.4 percent as of 10:27 a.m. local time today after falling 4.3 percent yesterday.
The risk of exerting heavy pressure for elections is illustrated just across the border, in the Gaza Strip, Cohen said. U.S.-backed parliamentary elections in 2006 resulted in victories for Hamas, the Islamic movement that has attacked Israelis and which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization.
History’s ‘Right Side’
“When people say he needs to be on the right side of history, it depends on what that history is going to be,” Cohen said. “It’s understandable that the administration is moving as slowly as it is because it has to say, what’s over the horizon and what is coming?”
The tension between prodding a Middle East strongman to liberalize his country and rewarding an ally for the stability he provides is a familiar bind for U.S. presidents, and one that dates back to then-President Anwar Sadat of Egypt signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
“What Mubarak has done very successfully is to position himself as a linchpin of the peace process as a regional intermediary,” said Diane Singerman, co-director of Middle East studies at American University in Washington. “But the U.S. has not understood the costs of this penchant for stability.”
One point of leverage for the U.S. is with the Egyptian military, which gets about $1.3 billion annually in aid. Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in contact with the Egyptian and Israeli ministers of defense about the situation. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, spoke with his Egyptian counterpart yesterday, praising the “continued professionalism” of the Egyptian armed forces in reacting to the protests, his spokesman, Captain John Kirby, said.
Line of Communication
Egyptian armed forces are a “pillar of the regime,” and their close ties with the U.S. military keeps open a significant line of communication with a power center there, Djerejian said. The administration is “relaying the clear message that the military should assure a nonviolent outcome in Egypt and manage an orderly transition,” he said.
The result so far has been restraint from the Egyptian military in dealing with street protests, Djerejian said.
In his Cairo speech on June 4, 2009, Obama drew cheers and applause from the younger members of the audience when he spoke about his “unyielding belief” that all people yearn to have freedom of speech, confidence in the rule of law and a say in how they are governed.
“Those are not just American ideas,” he said, “they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
Later that year, Obama won the Nobel peace prize for helping to create “a new climate in international politics,” said Thorbjoern Jagland, chairman of the five-member Nobel committee. In his acceptance speech, Obama acknowledged that award was mostly aspirational, saying that “I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage.”
Elliott Abrams, former President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser and a leading proponent of that administration’s campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East, said Obama undercut that message with his muted response to protests in Iran in 2009 and to Egypt’s flawed parliamentary elections last year.
While Obama administration officials say they have expressed concerns privately, “If you’re not doing it in public, certainly the Egyptian public doesn’t hear,” Abrams said.
In practice, the administration must weigh what sort of regime might come to power in Egypt, and that consideration has prevented the U.S from denouncing the 82-year-old Mubarak.
Walk the Walk
“Rhetorically, they’ve certainly talked the talk,” Djerejian said. “But the Obama administration, like most of the previous administrations, have found it difficult to walk the walk because of the daily challenges of pursuing U.S. national security interests which require working with existing regimes.”
During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Obama’s qualifications for office were challenged in a television advertisement intended to raise questions about how he would respond to a 3 a.m. phone call about an international crisis. The rival candidate behind the ad was Clinton.
“It’s at least a 2 a.m. moment for the president, or a 1 a.m. moment,” Cohen said. “I don’t know if 3 a.m. has arrived yet.”